Multiauthor boxed sets: What’s making them so hot (and not)?
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This past weekend, I served as faculty at the wonderful Pike’s Peak Writing Conference in lovely Colorado Springs, Colorado. There, my first job on the first day of the conference was to take part in a roundtable blind critique session of the first pages of several manuscripts.
It’s very cool to be asked to do that, because rarely do I have the opportunity to crush souls and milk dreams of their precious dreamjuice in person. Like, I could critique a page and even though the manuscripts were blind and I did not know to whom they belonged, I could still gaze out into the audience and find the author there, eyes wet and trembling as I bit into their writing with my dread incisors. And then I bellowed “DOOM” and ate the ashen pages as they wept.
Okay, not really. I do not relish the chance to destroy dreams, and I always tried to temper my criticisms with HEY I ALSO LIKED THIS because, quite truthfully, each page always had something I liked. In fact, almost all of them had at least one sentence that I wish I had written.
What was interesting to me, however, was that while each story was very different, my criticisms of those stories often kept to a few common themes. And I thought, as I always do, HEY, HOLY CRAP, BLOG POST. I can pass along my dubious critique and maybe you writers young and old can do something with them. Or maybe you’ll think, “That bearded fucktart can go pound sand,” and that’s fine, too. And bonus points for calling me “bearded fucktart.” SEE, I LIKE YOU.
(As a sidenote, I had originally thought to label this as advice for “aspiring writers,” but I will remind you that aspiring is often the same as dreaming of, but never doing, and really, fuck that noise. This blog is for writers who write. Full stop.)
You don’t realize how much that first page matters until you have to judge a story based on that first page. And then you’re forced to ask the question: “Would I keep reading?”
That first page is the start of the fulfillment of promise of your premise.
It’s saying, “Here is what this story is.” It’s the first taste of a meal — and if someone doesn’t like that first taste, they aren’t always so inclined to continue unless they’re starving for content. And in this day and age? Nobody is starving for content.
You are using too many words to say too few things. And the words you’re using are too big, or poorly chosen, or feel awkward. You’re using exposition where you don’t need any. You’re invoking description that is redundant or unnecessary. You’re giving your characters a wealth of mechanical details and actions that go well-beyond a few gestures and into the territory of telegraphing every eyebrow arch, every lip twitch, every action beat of picking up a coffee mug, blowing on it, sipping from it, setting it back down, picking it back up, drinking from it, on and on.
You’re placing all this language on the page that serves no purpose except its own existence.
You’re not James Joyce.
Cut. Tighten. Aim for rhythm-and-beat, not droning cacophony. Seek clarity over confusion. Early on, seek action over explanation. Mystery over answer. Leave things out rather than putting everything in. That’s not to say you cannot engage in a few flourishes of language. That’s not to say there won’t be a kind of poetry to your description, or a certain creative stuntery in terms of metaphor. But those are not the point of what you’re doing. Those are enhancements. They serve mood. They are a kind of narrative punctuation. They are single bites, not whole meals.
If your whole meal is just a wall of language, it’s both too much and not enough. It’s too much language, and not enough of why the fuck would I keep reading? Words are what we read, not why we read. They do not exist to serve themselves but rather, the purpose of conveying information. And the information you’re trying to convey is: story.
Kill exposition. Trim description to the leanest of cuts.
The fat will come later. The conversation will deepen as the story grows.
Do not build a wall of words.
Everything is character.
Because character is story.
This is not exaggeration. We read stories for characters. Characters are the prime movers of story. They say shit and they do shit and they want things and they are afraid of things and that’s it. That’s plot, story, that’s all of it. We may stay with a story for a whole lot of reasons, but our driving reason is character. Character compels us because we are people reading stories about people. Even when they’re robots or dragons or robot-dragons or orangutan secret agents, they’re still people for purposes of our narrative consumption. We see ourselves as characters in our own stories and so we seek characters within stories. It’s like an empathy bridge.
Your story must connect us to character immediately.
Because otherwise, I just don’t care. No threat or suspense or mystery is particularly engaging if it doesn’t have a character to reflect and represent it. Without strong character shot through the first page, everything you’re giving me is a data point.
I don’t read stories to consume data points.
If your story begins and I have no sense of character or why I should give a single slippery fuck about them, what’s the point? I’m looking for connection. I want to tether myself to a character. I want to care enough to continue reading. Make me care. It’s not enough to make me think. You can worry about my intellectual connection to the story later. Right now? Hit me in the emotions. Make me feel something. PUNCH ME IN MY HEARTBUCKET.
I’m bored. Your first page has bored me. Because nothing is happening. I don’t mean that the first moment should be cataclysm and clamor — but something needs to happen. Or be in the midst of happening. Repeat after me: action, dialogue, action, dialogue. Quick description as connective tissue. Short, sharp shock. Activity over passivity.
And hey, I get it. This is easier said than done. What I just told you above about character makes this part doubly tricky, and only goes to show just what an amazing trick it is to write a jaw-dropping face-kicking sphincter-clencher of a first page. It’s threading like, seven different needles in one swift movement. You’re trying to convey action and conversation but not without also giving us enough character to care but not so much character that you’re overwriting and you’re trying to say what you need to say at the bare minimum while still trying to maintain style and energy and you wanna offer mystery but not confusion and you want to inject genre without being ham-fisted and you wanna worldbuild a little bit but not write an encyclopedia…
I get it.
But damnit, penmonkey, you gotta try.
And you’re best starting off with:
Something Is Happening.
Right fucking now. And that’s why the story must be told and heard right fucking now.
Urgency! Impetus! Incitement! Excitement!
And here, the biggest lesson of them all, and a summation of all the problems.
You are in the way of your story.
Hard truth: writing is actually not that important.
Writing is a mechanism.
It’s an inelegant middleman to what we do. It’s a shame, in some ways, that we even call ourselves writers, because it describes only the mechanical act of what we do. It’s a vital mechanism, sure, but by describing it as the prominent thing, it tends to suggest, well, prominence.
But our writing must serve story.
Story does not serve writing.
This is cart-before-horse stuff, but important to realize.
Listen, in what we do there exist three essential participants.
The tale, the teller of the tale, and the listener of the tale.
Story. Author. And audience.
You are two-thirds of that equation. You are the story (or, by proxy, its architect) and the teller of the story. The telling of the story is most often done through writing — through that mechanical act, and because it’s the act you can sit and watch, it’s the one that is used to describe our role. I AM WRITER, you say, and so you focus so much on the actual writing you forget that there’s this other invisible — but altogether more critical — part, which is whatyou’re writing.
So, what happens is, early on, you put so much on the page. You write and write and write and use too many words and too much exposition and big meaty paragraphs and at the end all it serves to do is create distance between the tale and the listener of the tale.
It keeps the audience at arm’s length.
Quit that shit.
Bring the audience into the story. This is at the heart of show, don’t tell — which is a rule that can and should be broken at times, but at its core remains a reasonable notion: don’t talk at, don’t preach, don’t lecture, don’t fill their time with unnecessary wordsmithy.
Get. To. The. Point.
And the point is the story. Not the words used to tell that story.
Here, look at it this way: you ever have a conversation with someone and they tell you a story — something that happened to them, some thing at work, some wacky sexual escapade featuring an escaped circus shark and a kale farmer named “Dave” — and you just want to smack them around and tell them to get to the actual story? Like, they just dick around in the telling of the tale, orbiting the juicy bits and taking too goddamn long to just spit it out? Maybe they think they’re creating suspense, but they’re only creating frustration. Or maybe they know — as we all do, sometimes — that the story they’re telling is actually ALL HAT, NO COWBOY, and they’re trying to fill the time with hot air in much the same way you might pad a college paper with several shovels of additional horseshit to lend it weight (and, incidentally, stench)?
Stop doing that.
Stop wasting time.
Get the fuck out of the way of your story.
You are a facilitator. Writing is a mechanism. It can be an artful and beautiful mechanism, but without substance behind it — without you actually saying something and sharing a story — it is a hollow, gutless art. The story is what your audience wants, needs, and cares about.
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Suddenly it felt like I watching an episode of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago? Finding information on successful, openly-gay speculative fiction writers is harder than you would expect. And that’s why I wrote this article.
Here are five reasons we need more openly-gay speculative fiction writers.
Recently Anthony Mackie, actor, said the following:
“When I first got this [Captain America] role I just cried like a baby because I was like, ‘Wow, next Halloween, I’m gonna open the door and there’s gonna be a little kid dressed as the Falcon. That’s the thing that always gets me. I feel like everybody deserves that. I feel like there should be a Latino superhero. Scarlett [Johansson] does great representation for all the other girls, but there should be a Wonder Woman movie. I don’t care if they make 20 bucks, if there’s a movie you’re gonna lose money on, make it Wonder Woman. You know what I mean, because little girls deserve that. There’s so many of these little people out here doing awful things for money in the world of being famous. And little girls see that. They should have the opposite spectrum of that to look up to.”
If young girls need a Wonder Woman movie, LGBT youth need a Northstar movie or perhaps a Batwoman movie. Fictional allows us to create an internal mythology. It shapes the way we view the world. However, we also need real life heroes, role models young gay men and women can look up to.
What does it mean to be gay? That depends on the media you follow. Some view it as an abomination, a perversion. Others view it as a dirty secret. So is it any wonder that teen suicide rates are higher for LGBT youth? (source: here) Gay writers of speculative fiction need to stand up and create an identity. We cannot let the nebulous “main stream media” create if for us.
Don’t underestimate the power of Ellen DeGeneres. Her visibility and acceptance has probably done more to make gay men and women feel safe than dozens of laws. Why? Because she’s allowed to exist. Just the fact she’s on TV every day may help some youth decide not to end it all.
|Chuck Palahniuk: Source: http://chuckpalahniuk.net/news/fight-club-sequels-plot-revealed|
“I’m not straight, and I’m not gay. I’m not bisexual. I want out of the labels. I don’t want my whole life crammed into a single word. A story. I want to find something else, unknowable, some place to be that’s not on the map. A real adventure.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters
Nice try, Chuck. But get real. Imagine the response if a black man stood up and said “I’m not black.” One of my heroes is Sidney Poitier. Seeing an educated, articulate black man helped me realize I did not have to be a stereotype. No matter what racist bull was thrown at him, Poitier always maintained a level of dignity. His success and visibility changed my life.
So where are the gay writers? Do a Google search for famous gay writers. Go on. Do it. The number may surprise you. Then look at how many of them write speculative fiction. Look at how many of them stand up proudly as role models and compare it to those that are dragged out like Chuck Palahniuk.
I’m not going to lie: I’m a little bit in love with Palahniuk. Choke may be one of the best-written novels in the English language. Does it matter that he’s gay? It shouldn’t. But it does. Seeing another gay man succeed helps me realize it’s possible for me to succeed. No one’s tried to kill him or imprison him yet so maybe I’m safe.
Maybe it seems ridiculous to worry I’ll be killed by standing up and saying I’m gay. If you think that, it’s probably because you’re not reading the same news I am. There are several countries around the world that routinely imprison or kill gay men and women. Also consider the anti-gay law fiasco in Arizona earlier this year and the other states considering similar laws. (Source: here) Times have changed. But not that much
Even the CDC has a page devoted to violence and harassment aimed at LGBT youth. (Source: here)
Link: 76 Countries Where Anti-Gay Laws Are As Bad or Worse Than Russia
Another of my role models is Clive Barker. His writing was fresh and provocative, completely revamping the way I looked at fiction. He also happened to be gay. When I first discovered him, back in the 1990s, I realized that he was allowed to be gay and successful. Suddenly I realized the two things did not have to be mutually exclusive. I didn’t have to hide because he was alive. No one was trying to kill him. He wasn’t suppressed by main stream media. His sexuality colors all his writing but is not the focus of his fame.
Because of Clive Barker, it is easier for me to be myself. My hero.
|Clive Barker. Source: http://monkeypantz.net/misfit-monday-clive-barker/|
Despite all my searching, I still can’t find a list of speculative authors who happen to be openly gay. So I will create one. Stay tuned.
The Ossuary at Sedlec – or Bone Church of Kutna Hora as it’s more commonly known – is a relatively plain church from the exterior. At least as far as Old World European standards go. It sits about an hour outside of Prague in the Czech Republic, and last time I was there, some ten years ago, it was still a dingy mustard color on the outside.
In fairness, most ossuaries are just church basements filled with neatly piled up human bones, so there typically isn’t anything out of the ordinary about the actual structure it’s housed in. There’s no electrically powered Grim Reaper standing with a scythe a chuckling a deep MWAAHHAAHAAA, the way there is at any self-respecting haunted house.
In fact, the only feature that advertised that there just might be more than meets the eye to The Bone Church of Kutna Hora was the skull and crossbones spiked at the top of its spire – right where you’d usually see a crucifix.
Otherwise, the place just sat there like Boris Karloff without make-up.
When I visited on a gloomy October day in 2004, dragging my 20 month-old son and a prehistoric digital camera with me, I thought I would have to muscle my way through a throng of tourists.
But we were alone there.
Suitably, the only sounds we could hear were my own boot heels clicking on the stone tiles as we entered the foyer, the wheels of my son’s dilapidated MacLaren stroller and the whistle of a fall wind – the kind that blows tufts of dead leaves in a swirl. Some of those, mostly a fresh cluster of fiery orange oaks, blew with us into the Bone Church. A young man, very pale and black haired with a warm smile and crooked teeth, greeted us.
It should have been eerie, but it was exquisite.
A short staircase – also stone – led us down into the chamber, where an enormous chandelier lorded over the place. It was fashioned entirely of human bone – utilizing every bone in the human body, the young man told us in his hushed, churchy voice. The skulls would have held candles, I suppose, but the chandelier was unlit. In fact, the only light in the Bone Church came from the outside through a few kidney-shaped Gothic windows.
There were urns made primarily of femurs, a bone Coat of Arms belonging to the Schwarzenberg family, an endless garland (skull-vertebrae-vertebrae-knee cap, skull-tibia-skull-tibia) strung loosely along the trim like it was Christmas and several pyramids constructed of bones – ones that sat in iron-barred enclaves like slayed prisoners.
My son and I stood there absorbing the sheer magnitude of death around us. People who’d died of flu, arsenic poisoning, small pox, swords thrust into their rib cage, a heart-attack, a mallet to the temple, infection, childbirth, trampling, a broken heart.
The bones of some 30,000 Christians beautified this stark, chapel-like holy chamber – prominent and presumably pious Christians who had been promised burial in the Church of All Saints cemetery. But due to a string of plagues and wars, had found themselves without a place to land after they blew their last breath.
It occurred to me this strange permanent installation of sacred art – the devil’s art, some called it – was actually a clever solution to a very sensitive dilemma. Church teachings, after all, forbade cremation. And the poor souls who had counted on burial in the Church of All Saints holy cemetery had paid considerable tithes to earn their way into some kind of dignified and noble entombment.
And what could be more noble than the care and inspired vision required to create such a communal, yet deeply personal way to honor the departed? To me, it was the ultimate expression of both grief and hope.
My little son – and my first and most tender reminder of my own mortality – was getting restless and hungry, so I snapped a couple of pictures and we left.
But The Bone Church stayed with me and made its way into a story I’d begun writing.
The Bone Church: A Novel is now available on Amazon:
One might think the opposite will happen: that publishers will try to lure authors to them with better terms.
I don’t see that happening. Profit margins are already too thin, and while the Big 5 keep posting record sales figures thanks to ebooks, the trend won’t last forever. As paper sales dwindle and their monopoly on distribution ends, and more and more authors leave legacy to self-pub, publishers will squeeze the suppliers (authors) they still have. Right now advances are shrinking, some acquisitions aren’t even getting paper releases, and print runs are down. When belts begin to tighten, the last thing publishers will do is offer authors more of the pie. Like starving dogs, the Big 5 will viciously fight over the scraps that remain.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe publishers will start treating authors fairly, and become more open to negotiation with agents. And then Satan and I will go ice-skating in hell.
This content has been syndicated from JA Konrath:
Perhaps they left you a snotty book review. Maybe they attacked you instead of your book. Maybe they didn’t even read the book.
Perhaps they trolled your blog, or tried to engage you in a flame war in a forum, or misquoted you or lied about you.
If so, welcome to the Internet, where people write things they’d never say to your face, and anonymity makes the weakest coward brave and full of themself.
There is a simple, yet effective, way to deal with pinheads:
You shouldn’t Google yourself, or read your reviews, or seek out what others are saying about you, good or bad. None of it matters. The only people that matter are those in your inner circle. The rest of the world has no power over you unless you allow it.
Don’t allow it. There will always be negative people. There will always be trolls. There will always be pinheads. It isn’t your job to deal with them. They aren’t worth your time.
If you don’t have people who disagree with you, dislike you, and want you to fail, you aren’t living up to your potential.
Q: But Joe, someone just gave me a one star review for no reason at all.
A: Ignore them.
Q: But I only have a few reviews, and that blew my four star average.
A: If it is against the site’s rules, report the review. But you’d be better off not reading your reviews in the first place. Readers aren’t stupid. They can sniff out hateful one-star reviews the same way they can sniff out phony five-star reviews.
Q: What if the review misrepresents the book? Should I reply?
A: In 99.99% of circumstances, you shouldn’t reply to a review. On a very rare occassion (like this one) you can add a comment. But always be gracious, and keep your tone respectful.
Q: But what if someone really hurt my feelings? What should I do?
A: Have a beer and talk to your best friend. But don’t respond to the pinhead.
Q: Don’t you respond to pinheads on your blog?
A: I control my blog, and I don’t mind being trolled. But if things get out of hand, I kick people out and delete their comments. The only place you’ll have similar power is on your own blog. Everywhere else on the Internet, you should ignore them.
Q: You said to ignore them, but you just admitted that sometimes you don’t ignore them.
A: There aren’t many absolutes in life. There will usually be exceptions. But overall your best bet is to leave the tools in the toolbox. Don’t engage. Don’t respond. Ignore them.
Q: But this pinhead/review/comment is hurting my sales. How can I ignore that?
A: If you’re writing good books, one person/review/comment won’t hurt your sales. A hundred people/reviews/comments won’t hurt your sales.
Q: But I’m being systematically targeted by a cadre of haters who stalk me 24/7.
A: In very, very, very rare cases, you can involve the authorities. But my guess is you’re just being overly touchy. The baddest of the bad people on the Internet thrive on provoking responses. If you don’t respond, you take away their power.
Q: What if other people see those lies about me? Shouldn’t I reply?
A: No. And give people some credit. Do you ever Google someone, find something negative someone said about them, and assume that’s all there is to know? Or do you research further?
EVERY celebrity has haters. EVERY author has one star reviews. You aren’t being persecuted. Don’t take it personally, because you’re not that special. You’re just one of billions of Internet users who have been trolled. Welcome to the human race.
Q: But what about intelligent discourse? Do I need to avoid all debate?
A: Debate those who debate respectfully. Ignore those who don’t.
Q: Why are there so many pinheads on the Internet?
A: Human beings have a desire for control. It’s genetic. For some, the need for control extends beyond self. Some people with certain personality disorders (sociopaths, grandiose narcissists, those with low self-esteem and/or small penises) need to control others in order to feel good about themselves. One way to control someone is to tweak their emotional response.
That’s why you shouldn’t engage. If you don’t like what someone says, the greatest gift you can give that pinhead is to react.
Ignore them. Write that on a Post-It note if you have to and stick it to your monitor.
No one else cares if people are saying shit about you. The only one who cares is you. You need to pay more attention to your writing, and no attention to the pinheads.
Now turn off Google Alerts and get back to work.